Exhibition retraces the path of the Ephrussi family and their voluntary and involuntary travels
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Exhibition retraces the path of the Ephrussi family and their voluntary and involuntary travels
English artist Edmund de Waal, a descendant of the Ephrussi family, speaks next to Director of the Jewish Museum Danielle Spera (L) during the opening of an exhibition of the Ephrussi family collection, at the Jewish museum in Vienna, Austria on November 5, 2019. Ephrussi family members returned to Vienna in November for their first reunion in more than eight decades to attend the opening of an exhibition about their family story. JOE KLAMAR / AFP.

VIENNA.- With the exhibition “The Ephrussis. Travel in Time,” the Jewish Museum Vienna follows the traces of Edmund de Waal’s bestseller The Hare with the Amber Eyes, and tells the story of the famous Ringstrasse family Ephrussi.

The story of a family
The exhibition retraces the path of the Ephrussi family and their voluntary and involuntary travels between Russia, Austria, France, Great Britain, Spain, the USA, Mexico, Japan and other countries. On the basis of selected objects, documents and pictures, the economic and social development of a European-Jewish family, whose descendants now live scattered throughout the world as a result of flight and expulsion, is depicted.

At the heart of the exhibition is the Ephrussi Family Archives, donated to the Jewish Museum Vienna by the De Waal family, as well as 157 netsukes provided by the family as a long-term loan to the museum.

A European family
The Ephrussis left their mark all over Europe and later around the world: In Odessa, from where the family’s economic and social advancement began. In Vienna, where the family further expanded their social position and their network, married into Viennese society, and inscribed themselves in the city’s history with the building of Palais Ephrussi. In Paris, where Charles Ephrussi, art patron and art collector, inspired Marcel Proust to write his novel In Search of Lost Time, and the Dreyfus affair split French society. Despite their social standing, the Ephrussis were not immune to rising anti-Semitism and the ills of two world wars.

The story after 1938 ultimately tells of the robbery of the Ephrussi assets by the National Socialist regime, of the family’s expulsion from Vienna, of life in exile, and of the family’s efforts to bring about restitution, the proceedings of which continue to this day.

A Viennese family
Chaim Joachim Ephrussi and his sons, Ignaz and Leon, were excellent networkers who soon extended their business empire beyond the borders of Russia. In 1857, Joachim Ephrussi founded a trading house in Vienna with the permission of the Russian authorities. His younger son, Ignaz, moved his main residence to the capital of the Habsburg Empire, while the elder son, Leon, ran the company in Odessa. Through Ignaz Ephrussi’s marriage to Emilia Porges, the Ephrussis sealed their affiliation with the old-established Jewish families of Vienna. In 1871, Emperor Franz Joseph granted the Russian citizen Ignaz Ephrussi a hereditary title of nobility for his services to the city of Vienna. However, Ignaz’s son, Viktor Ritter von Ephrussi, first gave up his Russian citizenship in 1911, and acquired the right to live in Vienna.

In 1869, Ignaz Ephrussi commissioned Theophil Hansen, the favorite architect of the Viennese bourgeoisie, to erect a mansion at Franzensring 24, today Universitätsring 14. The architect paid special attention to the design of the Belle Étage with a separate stairwell for the house owner and his family. The representation rooms were designed as a complete work of art and planned down to the smallest detail. The paintings in the ballroom are dedicated to the biblical story of Esther, perhaps as Ignaz Ephrussi’s acknowledgement to his Jewish family history.

A family in exile
In March 1939, Viktor Ephrussi succeeded in fleeing to his daughter, Elisabeth de Waal, who lived in Great Britain. The family settled in Tunbridge Wells, where Viktor Ephrussi died on March 12, 1945. In his will he revoked the renunciation of his possessions in Vienna, which he had been coerced to sign by the Gestapo. Following the death of her father, Elisabeth de Waal established a new life with her family in the UK. They converted to the Church of England, and their eldest son, Victor de Waal, later embarked on a career as an Anglican priest. He was Dean of Canterbury from 1976 to 1986, and is active in refugee aid today. Ignaz “Iggie” Ephrussi left his hometown of Vienna before the “Anschluss” in 1938. After spending time in Paris and Frankfurt, he went to the United States in 1934, where he worked as a fashion designer. In 1941, he accepted US citizenship. His younger brother, Rudolph, managed to escape from Vienna to the United States in 1939. Both brothers joined the U.S. Army following the country’s entry into World War II, and returned to Europe as soldiers. Rudolph Ephrussi received the Bronze Star Medal for outstanding achievement in combat; his brother Iggie took part in the landing of the Allies in Normandy in 1944. He moved to Japan after the war and became an Austrian citizen again in 1965. Rudolph Ephrussi spent the rest of his life in the USA with his wife and six children.

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